Hard for me to believe, but I’ve known my pal David Baker for twelve years. After we worked together for several years, our family broke bread together, and our children attended the same preschool, he and his family moved from Columbia, Missouri to the lovely Corvallis, Oregon, where he serves as Director of Productions at Oregon State University. I decided to forgive him for this, and we’ve stayed in touch and visited when we could. His first published novel, VINTAGE, has been called “A feast for all readers” in a starred review from Library Journal, the Seattle Times declared it “positively delightful,” and Booklist said, “Baker’s thriller offers entertainment and no little suspense for wine lovers.” It’s now available in paperback from Touchstone Books. We spoke recently about Vintage and other things.
SHORY: So first of all, are you corresponding with me from some exotic locale like you’ve been frequenting lately, like Tahiti or Saudi Arabia or someplace like that? If so we might need to conclude the interview right now, because that’s very annoying.
BAKER: Well, I did just return from Colombia. The one near the equator that’s spelled funny, not the one in Missouri. I was down there for a documentary film project on the decline of coral reefs for my day gig at Oregon State. It’s a sad story…nearly half of all the world’s reefs have disappeared in the past fifty years, mainly because we’re assholes. Pollution, corporate fishing, climate change. Locals are forced to resort to dynamite fishing to feed their families.
So we learned about this recently discovered reef at the mouth of Cartagena Bay, where a canal from the Magdalena River drains a lot of sediment and contaminates. This reef is a mystery…it shouldn’t be there. The water quality tells us that. Science tells us that. But despite all we know about reefs, it’s not only surviving, it’s thriving. It’s beautiful. Somehow these corals have evolved in this one place to survive the worst we can throw at it. The rest of the Caribbean has been decimated, upwards of eighty percent of the corals are gone in that one sea. Of course, we can’t just let it survive. Now the port authorities are planning to dredge a canal to allow the big Panamax freighters in, and it’s going right through this miraculous reef. So we were down there documenting it, plus the people who are working to try to study and maybe save it. It includes local fishermen who get most of their protein from it, Colombian, Mexican and US scientists, plus even a former guerrilla turned environmentalist. It’s a fascinating story, but it also breaks your heart.
SHORY: Must be nice to get to see so many places like that for your day job.
BAKER: Yes, I’m quite lucky to have opportunities to travel for both my straight work, and then my independent film and writing projects. Oregon State is a land-grant university. Land-grants are universities that have a special mission of informing the public. Traditionally that has meant educating the middle and lower classes and also helping small businesses and teaching farmers how to improve what they do, extension offices in every county, that sort of thing. Out here we believe what that mission means in the 21st Century includes outreach like films about the biggest issues facing our world. We want to make people understand what’s going on, the gravity of it. The fate of our oceans, and the decline of corals is certainly a big one. If they disappear, the entire ocean food web will collapse.
I used to think that my lone skill as an English major and then an MFA recipient…telling stories…was quite useless in the marketplace. But then I started to learn that other people in other disciplines–in this case, scientists–often aren’t very good at it, nor should they be. So sometimes they need to take a storyteller along to document the work that they do in a way that people will actually want to see it. So I now try to weasel my way into any opportunity to travel somewhere when this skill is needed. Sometimes I have to pay my own way, but in many cases I get to do it as part of my day job. Double bonus. It’s led me to some interesting places indeed. Next week I’m scheduled to film a whale pooping in the Pacific off of Oregon. I guess scientists can learn a lot from fresh whale poop. Should be a hit on YouTube.
SHORY: Wasn’t VINTAGE originally a screenplay? Can you talk a little about the process of converting a screenplay to a novel? What changed the most in the conversion?
BAKER: VINTAGE actually started as a novel, but then it stalled. It was bogged down in the very (necessarily) overwrought voice of its protagonist, Bruno. The first draft was first-person, and not much happened in terms of plot. So I switched to a screenplay format and by its nature, it had to start moving. Scripts are very action-oriented being a part of a visual medium. You have a certain framework you have to work with…90-100 pages, three-act structure, a series of reversals to keep the audience engaged. So that formula was helpful in forcing me to come up with a plot. That’s where all the noir elements came from. But by the end of the screenplay process, I felt that the character’s voice and personality was a little lost, so I went back to the novel form using the script as a sort of outline. This time I worked in the third person, though I kept some of Bruno’s first-person voice for the chapter introductions. It was very liberating to not have to worry about plot and just really be able to explore what this character was thinking and feeling through all of these scenes.
At Columbia College Chicago we used to do this semester-long fiction exercise called a “steeple chase,” where you’d take an abandoned story or novel and start from the beginning. One week the instructor would tell you to write in the first person. Then the next week she’d tell you to pick up where you left off but switch to third. Then she’d say to switch forms: a play, a newspaper article, a script, a letter, a journal entry, etc…all this until you reached the end. Switching forms gives you a new perspective on the story and some fresh legs for continuing. It’s a great exercise, and I think what I did with VINTAGE was an extension of this process.
SHORY: I read a version of that screenplay some years back. Seems like that early version was a bit more thriller-oriented than the eventual novel.
BAKER: Yeah, I think that’s both the advantage and limitation of the script format. You can’t go inside the character. All the interior work is done by the actors, cinematographers and director. In a script you can’t slip inside a character. So you have to focus on plot and physical action and dialogue…all of those are important. But it shows why novels are such a liberating form to work in. There are no rules. I’m glad I tried a draft as a screenplay, though. It helped me to focus on the elements of the story that weren’t working.
SHORY: Tell me a little about the research you did for this book. I know you’ve spent time in Europe, but have you actually been to Moldova? Each setting feels very well rendered.
BAKER: Thank you! Many of the settings were real places that I’ve been. Especially the town of Beaune, where I initially stopped with my wife quite by accident and then discovered wine. It’s in the heart of Burgundy, the most lovely wine country, and you can stroll out of town right into these vineyards and tiny hamlets where unassuming farmers in muddy boots and stained tee shirts make some of the most sought-after wines on the planet. That trip lit a spark and I came back trying to learn everything I could about wine, and that included working in commercial vineyards, planting grapes in my yard and making wine in the garage, not to mention a documentary I made in which I interviewed dozens of winemakers.
The book was also set largely in Chicago, which also provided grounding for me. And I think those places that I’ve been and know well anchored the story enough for me to write about places I haven’t been, like Moscow and Moldova. I have a minor in Russian history, so I know a fair bit about the region, but having never been there required a lot of additional research. I read articles about issues in Russian politics, travel books, watched documentaries and also used the Internet. I watched hours of Moldovan wedding videos on YouTube, particularly the dances, to help with the scene set there.
Research is important and fun, but I also find that it can bog you down and prevent you from writing. I avoid doing research for the first draft. For the first draft of anything I just wing it and try to fix inaccuracies and add details later on. And sometimes I’ll find that the stuff I just imagined was accurate. It’s a strange feeling to read about something you complete fabricated and find out that you’ve actually described something real quite well. It’s like a sort of writerly deja vu.
So research was very much a process thing in this book. I actually think that every book or script has its own process, and you need to spend some time figuring out what that is along the way, which is part of the challenge and also what makes it fun.
SHORY: The protagonist, Bruno Tannenbaum, bears more than a passing resemblance to another creation of yours I fondly recall, Brown Trout. Am I right that his roots can be traced back to that character?
BAKER: Ah, the old Brown Trout. Yes, that was a character from a fictional blog about a college professor, a sort of literary gourmand teaching at a small Midwestern university. That was in the early days, before social media, and a many people thought he was a real person. It was a strange experiment that eventually fizzled. But that was an exciting time for blogs…when people where just figuring them out, and there were creative anonymous fictional projects all over the place, some of which were really interesting. I’m thinking of one in particular featuring a fellow who called himself the Irate Savant, which I’m sure you might know a thing or two about. There was also Walter Kirn’s “Unbinding,” which was being serialized on Slate around that time.The Brown Trout blog experiment faded, but what I didn’t realize at the time was that I was riffing on variations of a character. But it wasn’t until I had a plot, an actual story with forward momentum that it all started to come together. I think it’s a good example of how nothing is wasted when it comes to writing. I experimented with character and form, following this fellow around and hoping that a novel would happen. Then a half dozen years later a similar character shows up when I started writing VINTAGE. Now I’m starting to learn that each story has its own process and form, and part of the storyteller’s challenge is discovering what that is.
SHORY: Did you find your hometown of Chicago easier to write about once you left?
BAKER: Absolutely. There are two points when I feel comfortable writing about a place: when I first get there, or long after I leave. But once I’m settled in, all of those magic little details that breathe life into a setting start to become routine and I don’t notice them anymore. Once you leave, though, certain things start to stand out in your memory. Maybe it’s nostalgia or the funny way that memory works, but a place suddenly becomes special again. It becomes alive. I’m working on a novel now about rural Missouri, where I lived eight years ago. I have the small town weekly newspaper delivered out here, and I keep the Department of Conservation’s natural events calendar on my wall, and it all seems so exotic even though I lived it for nearly a decade. Back when I lived in Missouri, I wrote a novel set in the Florida Keys, where I traveled often with my wife when we were younger.I know this is different for everyone. Some writers become really immersed in a region and it shows. I’m thinking of Brian Doyle, a Portland-based writer whose work is so imbued with this strange and wonderful place we call the Northwest. When I read him it’s like l’m rediscovering the region. If I end up staying here in Oregon I may never write about it, though. We’ll see.
SHORY: With experience now in the movie and publishing worlds under your belt, what advice would you give your younger naive self if you had the chance?
BAKER: Gosh, I don’t know. That’s a good question. I think I still need help. I still think there’s so much room to grow. For example, something that’s still quite mysterious to me about writing novels and making independent films is how anyone manages to make a living doing it. I know all to precious few who actually do. But I guess I would tell myself what I’d tell any young writer or writing student now that I’m no longer either of those. I’d say that you have to work very, very hard, for hours, months, years. And even then there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to earn a living, get published or even be very good. But I can promise that not a word is wasted. You can always get better if you push for it. Every draft can be rewritten. Any story can get better. And even if you can’t get specific film into a film festival or find an agent for a certain novel, there’s no outside force in the world that can prevent you from making or writing another one. Only you can determine that. You’re unstoppable, if you want to be. You don’t need anyone’s permission to write, or even to make a film now that the technology has lowered the cost of entry (though making a film still costs money while writing only takes your time). And the one thing I can promise is that, by taking that step, to start telling a story, you’ll be participating in one of the great human endeavors. Look at Native American legends. The Greek tragedies. Walk into a library. Scroll through your Netflix queue. Sheesh, it’s amazing. It’s been going on for thousands of years and it shows no signs of slowing down. Telling stories is the grand currency of our existence. If you tell a story, you’re doing someone a favor. And if you listen to someone else’s story, you’re probably doing them an even bigger favor. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that? As soon as we stop telling stories, we’re done as a species, as far as I’m concerned. So for that reason, I think it’s a great privilege to be wired in such a way that you want to even try doing it. What about you? What would you tell your younger self after years in the trenches?
SHORY: A lot of your creative life in the past 10 years has been devoted to writing about wine and winemaking. Think that trend continue in your future work?
BAKER: I think so. I think specializing has its benefits. It’s too early to say if this will be a topic or subject to which I’ll be confined, but food and wine are mysterious, wonderful things, and people like them. I’ve said before that every bottle of wine from a small vineyard or family winery tells a story on so many levels: what the weather was like the year it was made, the millions of years of geological history that shaped the soils in which the vines were grown, the cultural history of the region it’s from and finally the personal story of the winemakers themselves. It’s a rich subject. Even if it’s not the main subject, I’m sure it’ll always at least make a cameo. I could write and make films for the rest of my life and still not exhaust the story potential of food and wine. But, of course I’d love to try other things as well. I’m working on the documentary now about coral reefs, for example, and in my travels I’m gathering lots of ideas for fiction around these ecosystems.
SHORY: I can’t let you go without asking for wine recommendations. What have you discovered lately, especially for someone on a public employee budget?
There are good deals in Portuguese white wines and they’re getting easier to find. Vinho Verdes is a region to look for. Great table wines. If you’re looking for Burgundy style reds without the price tag, Cru Beaujolais made from Gamay grapes is something to keep an eye out for. Kind of trendy right now, but very interesting wines are coming out of that region.
And if there’s a small wine shop nearby, ask the owner what she’s excited about for less than twenty bucks. She’ll find something for you. That’s where I usually start.
SHORY: Finally, will the damn Chicago Bears ever win another Super Bowl?
BAKER: There’s always hope. My wife is the world’s biggest fan, so for her sake I hope it happens someday. My daughter, a born contrarian, is the last Jay Cutler fan on Planet Earth. Then there’s our local Oregon State Beavers, who face far greater odds of ever finding their way to a championship. But hey, if I can publish a book and earn a few decent reviews after trying for thirty-something years, it’s certainly possible. I wouldn’t rule anything out.
Learn more about VINTAGE and David Baker’s other work at http://vintagenovel.com.